It is easy to pretend you’re detached from the rest of India while in Goa. In fact, some people often mistake it for being an island when in reality it is the smallest state in India and very much a part of the mainland.
Colonized by the Portuguese for approximately 450 years, it retains a lot of its European characteristics and it is that former colonial charm which distinguishes it from its neighbouring states. Its unusual fusion of old and new and its array of stunning beaches have made it a tourist hotspot among both domestic and international visitors. This rising popularity over the years, particularly in the last decade has bought about change and as a native of Goa (through my upbringing) I have adjusted and adapted…knowing what to avoid and where to escape to for Goan ‘authenticity’.
Based on that I've put together a rough 'do and don't' list.
When in Goa DO:
EXPLORE SOUTH GOA. Though this area is also increasingly being explored by mass tourism, it is still very much what I consider real Goa. The traditions and daily life of the locals are more visible and not as diluted as it is in the north due to the over development of tourism. When in South Goa DO keep an eye out for beef croquettes and patties. The south is renowned for these tasty treats; more so than the north.
VISIT THE LOCAL MARKETS. There are many flea markets geared towards tourists but the local markets can be cheaper, less pushy (…a tad less pushy) and also offer a chance of engaging more with people going about their day to day life. The Mapusa Market on a Friday can be chaotic so it is advisable to visit early-mid morning. I advise going before the midday sun engulfs the hoards of locals, all of whom are on their lunch breaks rushing to buy household supplies before their afternoon siesta.
WANDER AROUND LOCAL VILLAGES ON FOOT. The locals are used to tourists zipping around on the back of bikes, clicking away on their cameras, treating their villages as postcard images and the people as exotic specimens . Sure, use a scooter to find an area worth exploring but take a walk, wish people a good evening, grab a Chai (tea) and Poi with bhaji (local bread and bean bhaji) from a local snack joint. It is important to observe not just document. You will also feel more a part of the ‘susegad’ living (a very Goan word and a way of life).
PRACTICE YOUR HAGGLING SKILLS. When it comes to buying stuff at the markets, it is always best to bargain (at least 20% less than the asking price). Of course, be aware of the local currency and the average cost of living so that you don’t offend anyone by quoting too low a price but also be careful, as a visitor, not to be overcharged as this can be common when an understanding of local currency is blurred.
HAVE A STASH OF SMALL NOTES. Tipping is a very normal thing across India. Ideally 10% of the bill is the norm but any sort of a tip is smiled upon. It is good to acknowledge that people work hard and are paid very humble salaries in the developing world. The tips they make help them A LOT. I am not saying that tip ALL the time, of course various factors influence your desire to tip but if you’ve received a good service, which you will most times, then it is only normal to tip. Be aware, in larger restaurants and establishments, a tip is often added to the bill but isn’t always passed on to the necessary staff member. Also, try to tip the person who served you in hand rather than leaving it on a table. It is both a sign of respect and gratitude.
HIRE A BIKE. When I talk of a bike I refer a mainly to a moped (as they are the best value). They are the easiest way to get around and are available in abundance. You will need a driving license to get one. Again, when hiring a bike, hire one with a black and yellow number plate, these are licensed hire vehicles. Remember to haggle the price because though bikes are available EVERYWHERE, EVERYONE also wants a bike, making it easy business. Worth knowing, some locals pass off private bikes (with white and black number plates) as hire vehicles…try to avoid these as this can mean as a foreigner, you may be stopped and questioned by authorities.
ALSO VISIT IN THE MONSOON. The dry season runs between the end of October and starts winding down by April/May. These are the most popular months for the winter sun seekers and also the months in which Goa makes it money. Many wouldn’t choose to visit Goa in the wetter Monsoon months between June- September, though personally I find the Monsoon offers respite to the land and allows it to blossom into a tropical green landscape once more. Nature reclaims the land and Goa becomes sleepier and returns to the locals. If you don’t mind the quiet and lack of tourism buzz, then this is the ideal time to visit. Just be sure to pack the mosquito repellent and accept that the beach will be more wild and hostile.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LESS FORTUNATE. You will notice a handful of street children, beggars, disabled people and strays on your visit. Sadly, the system overlooks the less fortunate in the developing world and as humans I think it is important to give what we can, where we can. Not necessarily in the form of money (unless you feel it will help) but simply acknowledging those that need help. There are a lot of people that need help in India and some can be found in Goa, though not that many. I appreciate we cannot help everyone but we can do our bit. Whether that is buying a poor man a t-shirt and some flip flops, offering a street child a meal or carrying some biscuits for stray animals- it all helps.
When in Goa DON’T:
DRINK AND DRIVE. Though the law may seem lenient when it comes to alcohol consumption and drink driving or riding- it is still illegal. There a multiple reasons NOT to do this. These being, the disregard for the use of helmets, the unbelievable amount of pot holes and uneven roads, the pushy reckless drivers AND of course, other drunk drivers. Most tourists visit Goa with a carefree, ‘anything goes’ attitude and it is easy to join in. All I advise is a little safety and awareness.
START ARGUMENTS WITH THE LOCALS. Goans can be the friendliest and most welcoming of people and are very much part of a community. As a visitor, if you find yourself on the wrong side of one, it is better to be apologetic and humbled. In reality if you mess with one Goan you mess with his whole family, the whole village and basically the whole of Goa. So basically be happy, be polite and be respectful (even though it might be hard at times).
DON’T BE INCONSIDERATE. Goa is very liberal and the Goans are a relatively accepting group of Indians. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to respect their beliefs and traditions. Read up on the cultural differences before you visit.
VISIT CALANGUTE BEACH. Of course this is personal opinion and in my opinion Calangute beach is overrun with unruly tourism and isn’t what I deem to be Goa. It has become a generic overcrowded, over abused tourist hub. Avoid it if possible. Between you and me, and possible the only reason to visit Calangute, are the cliché souvenir shops selling key rings, little marble artifacts, and trinkets that can be bought VERY cheap and at a fixed rate.
DON’T FOLLOW SPIRITUALITY BLINDLY. Goa can be a very spiritual place for some and it is easy to be carried away with those free souls that wander the streets. It is wonderful to feel connected to the land and to nature but to do so with balance and awareness. Wandering the muddy streets bare foot isn’t always the best idea as you can end up with a nasty piece of glass in your foot or a fungal infection. Also, just as people go to find themselves, they can also end up very lost- be careful who you surround yourself with when in an unfamiliar place (especially female travelers). Certain places like Arambol can be very intense, and just as there are many wonderful people wandering about, there are also many lost souls too.